If you thought that America’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was a backward, draconian step for free speech and the development of global digital economies, the Republic of Belarus intends to go one better.
From 6 January 2012, a law will come into effect making it illegal for citizens of Belarus to visit or use foreign websites; anyone breaking the law will be found to have committed a misdemeanour, and fined up to $125 USD (to put this into perspective, the average monthly wage in Belarus is approximately $208, as of December 2011). Companies and individuals will be forbidden from accessing websites, using email or webmail services, payment and transaction services, and other online activities, unless they are provided through domestic domains on homeland servers.
The Belarusian Government has made clear that its legislation isn’t just a technicality that will exist on paper alone. If a friend uses your computer, or if a neighbour piggy-backs on your home network, to access a foreign website via your connection, you will be held accountable and liable to prosecution. Internet cafés that fail to properly limit access to foreign websites will be subject to fines; if owners of internet cafés find users accessing foreign sites, but fail to report those users to the authorities, their businesses will be subject to closure.
According to the United States Library of Congress, the Government of Belarus has authorised its national police force, secret police agencies and tax authorities “to initiate, investigate and prosecute” any violations by individuals and organisations both domestic and foreign. If an international company such as Amazon makes a sale to a Belarusian citizen, the Attorney General of Belarus reserves the right to hold the company in contempt of the State, and may choose to sue the company. For this reason, many observers believe that multinational websites will simply block access to Belarus entirely, in order to avoid any such hassle or litigation, effectively shutting off Belarus from the digital world.
Speaking with the Computer Business Review, the Belarusian Embassy in London stated that the new legislation aims “to protect the rights of Belarusian citizens… to improve the quality of internet services and make them cheaper, and to encourage further growth of the national segment of the internet network.”
There’s nothing quite like protecting someone’s rights by taking their rights away. But perhaps it was inevitable in a country that constitutionally forbids censorship, but at the same punishes citizens with up to five years in prison for insulting its President, or up to two years in jail for speaking badly of Belarus abroad.